Most HPV infections do not cause health problems. However, since an HPV infection can become cancerous, it is important to understand what HPV is, how it can lead to cancer, and how to prevent it.

The Human Papillomavirus, commonly referred to as HPV, is the most common sexually transmitted virus – of which there are over 100 types. Around 40 of these types are thought to be transmitted sexually, and 14 are high-risk (linked to cancer).

Globally, high-risk types of HPV cause around 5% of all cancers. Persistent HPV infections are now recognised as the major cause of cervical cancer. Almost all cervical cancer cases are caused by a chronic HPV infection that changes the cells inside the cervix.

HPV may also play a role in the development of several other cancers, including:

  • Oral cancer (mouth, tongue and throat)
  • Vulva or vaginal cancer
  • Anal cancer
  • Penile cancer.

Meanwhile, the HPV types which are regarded as being a low risk for cancer often cause genital warts. In fact, types 6 and 11 cause around 90% of genital warts.

If you have a low-risk HPV type, you may find that your immune system can get rid of the virus naturally over time. In many cases, the body can also clear high-risk HPV infections. However, in some people, a high-risk infection will become persistent, possibly leading to cancer.

Who is most at risk of HPV?

Since HPV can be transmitted by body-to-body contact and exchange of fluids through vaginal, penile, oral, or anal sexual contact and intercourse, it is possible for anyone who is sexually active to catch HPV.

Most people with an HPV infection will not show any symptoms. Even when symptoms are not present, the virus can still be transmitted.

How to prevent catching HPV

There are several ways to lower your risk of contracting an HPV infection:

  • Ensure that you have been vaccinated against HPV
  • Limit your number of sexual partners
  • Use a condom every time you have sex.

Condoms are always advised to prevent the transmission of STIs. However, it is important to know that HPV can infect areas not covered by a condom. Therefore, condoms do not provide full protection against HPV.

Graph to show proportion of HPV-Induced Cancer

How can an HPV test prevent cervical cancer?

Current UK guidelines advise that women aged 25-49 should attend a cervical screening every 3 years, or every 5 years for those aged 50 and over. During a cervical screening appointment, a sample of fluids will be collected from your vagina and tested for high-risk HPV. Sometimes, this sample will also collect some cells from your cervix.

If your test for HPV is positive, the cells will be examined under a microscope to detect any changes. These changes could be an early sign that the HPV virus infection could lead to cancer. In the event any cellular changes are found, your doctor can recommend treatment and prevent cervical cancer from developing.

Better2Know can help you to take care of your cervical health

Early detection is an important factor in the successful treatment of cervical cancer. Better2Know’s recommended test for women is a combined PAP smear and an HPV test at the same time. This is the most comprehensive cervical screen available.

To arrange an appointment at a clinic near you, simply phone our highly trained sexual health advisors on the number at the top of the page or book online.

We also provide a vaginal swab home test kit for those who would prefer to test for high-risk types of HPV from the comfort of their own home. It is important to understand that this test is not a replacement for a PAP smear, and it is important to attend your routine smear test appointments.

Additionally, we offer a home test kit which can detect low-risk types of HPV, suitable if you have a suspected wart that you can swab.

Sources

[1] Cancer.net: HPV and Cancer

[2] NHS: What is cervical screening?




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